Op-Ed: How Biden can restore US world management after Trump's withdrawal from worldwide establishments


Woody Allen once said, "Eighty percent of the success shows up." No advice is more important to President-elected Joe Biden as he sets out his strategy for regaining America's lost ground and influence around the world.

The relative global withdrawal trend in the US preceded the Trump administration but has accelerated over the past four years. The Biden government is committed to working with global partners and allies to revive the common cause. However, reversing current trends must begin with an understanding of where the US "no-shows" were most significant.

Announcing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) this week would be a good start. China was at the center of the largest multilateral trade agreement in the world – and the United States watched it from afar -. It brings together countries that make up around 30% of global economic output and population.

The deal is a fitting bookend for a Trump administration that withdrew in the first few hours from negotiations on a trans-Pacific partnership agreement that would have sealed America's trade ties with eleven other Asian economies – stealing a march against China. Instead, this agreement was made between these countries, but excluding the United States. The Biden administration should first investigate whether there is an expedited way to rejoin this group. However, the phenomenon of US relative withdrawal, dubbed by some scholars as the "world without a US", goes well beyond trade. Last week, for example, both the United States and Europe were left out when Russia brokered an agreement that ended the six-week bloody conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Whatever one thinks of the agreement and the Armenians seem to have lost the most from today's perspective, what impressed the international diplomats most was the central and undisputed role of President Vladimir Putin. Turkey was the only major country affected, but it was neither a signatory to the agreement nor is it mentioned in the agreement. However, Ankara's military and diplomatic support contributed to Azerbaijan's victory.

Putin's message to Europe and the world was clear at a time of political transition and America's diversion: the United States is no longer a decisive factor in "his region".

"If Russia misses this opportunity and leaves Moscow in full control of the end of the war, it will now find itself with military bases on the territory of all three republics of the South Caucasus," writes Neil Hauer, a Canadian journalist and analyst from the South Caucasus. "Any US engagement with Karabakh (under a Biden government) will now start firmly on its back foot, thanks to this unfavorable local reality."

American diplomats who have invested their careers in the democratic and peaceful development of countries on Russia's borders have noticed the stark contrast between the waning influence of the US and Washington's central role 25 years ago in brokering the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War .

Many Americans may welcome less Washington's involvement in such distant conflicts, even if they do not involve US forces. The impression left by allies and opponents around the world, however, is that Washington has tacitly accepted a diminished global role that remains of uncertain shape and ambition.

They refer to the recent Abraham Accords, through which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed peace agreements with Israel to underscore how much Washington can build a better future if it so wishes. But even there, the parties in the Middle East went ahead in part as a safeguard against growing concerns about a reduced American presence.

The list is a long list of places where Partners want the Biden government to reinstate US influence. The Biden government is likely to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and World Health Organization on inauguration day, but move forward on other fronts as well.

First, the U.S. partners will observe whether President Biden works more closely together in multilateral settings like the G-7 and G-20 to better address the global common cause in response to Covid-19, vaccine distribution and ongoing economic shocks . As an example of such leadership, they show how America responded to the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

You will also see how quickly and with what success the United States returns to its engagement in multilateral organizations like the United Nations. Whatever Americans think of the United States' performance, the US withdrawal has left the door open for China to fill top positions in a number of the most influential agencies in the United States. China now runs four of the 15 specialized U.S. agencies and groups that operate the organization's machinery. No other country has more than one country.

Most importantly, but also politically the most difficult, it will be to address China's global economic and trade gains, as signified by this week's RCEP agreement.

Nowhere could the United States gain ground faster than by concluding trade and investment agreements with its European and Asian partners, either by joining existing ones or by concluding new ones.

What RCEP shows is that China and some of Washington's closest regional partners recognize that the quickest route to greater prosperity is through trade and liberalization of economic ties. The deal is expected to add $ 209 billion to global incomes and $ 500 billion to world trade by 2030.

Even so, both Democratic and Republican Congressmen and their constituencies have grown suspicious of the agreements that are most important to managing the rise of China.

Manfred Weber, chairman of the European People's Party, the largest constituency in the European Parliament, told the South China Morning Post that the new Asia-Pacific trade deal should be a "wake-up call" for the transatlantic common cause.

"We need a reunification of the so-called Western world," he said, "now with Joe Biden as a constructive partner to face this challenge from China. That is the key question for the coming decade."

If we go back to Woody Allen, maybe 80% of the success will be visible, but it is the final 20% that will make the difference to the story. Can President-elect Biden bring European and Asian partners together in a historic deal to counter the growing influence of China and authoritarian capitalism? Or will US politics and the disorder among global democracies block this crucial path to global relevance?

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.

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Katherine Clark